It’s been a hectic year end, I’ve been overwhelmed with year-end stuff, and have been a bad, bad blogger. The good news is that I’m back at it now, but the fatalistic part of me asks “What’s the point? Afterall the world is going to end in a couple hours.” You’ve not noticed? Perhaps that’s best, because it reduces the likelihood of widespread panic, but our Gregorian calendar ends at midnight December 31st! The obvious implication is that it’s the end of the world! Clearly Pope Gregory XIII had advanced divinely-inspired knowledge of the coming cataclysm.
At least that’s the logic being used to advance the whole 2012 mythos.
For both of you who haven’t heard about this, the ancient Mayan calendar ostensibly comes to an end in 2012, and there are no shortage of doomsayers who claim that the Mayans somehow had advance knowledge of the end of the world, and their calendar reflects this. With 2012 slightly over a year away, you can be certain that this is a topic to which we’ll be turning here fairly regularly, even though it more correctly falls under the purview of “Fiction not Science”.
It’s understandable, actually. From an evolutionary standpoint, it was practically yesterday that we hunted/gathered our own food, and lived in constant fear of being eaten by the saber toothed cat. So in some senses our bodies are still wired for a way of life that hasn’t existed for several thousands of years. Most of us, with varying frequencies and intensities, still need to feel that primal surge of adrenaline. Some of us, myself among them, enjoy violent games like football, rugby, or hockey. Some of us, myself sometimes among them, get the ol’ adrenaline pumping through extreme sports. Some of us, myself rarely among them, enjoy roller coasters (not a fan). Many of us in all the previous categories scare ourselves by watching horror or action movies.
Some, myself definitely not among them, worry about the End of the World Scenario Du Jour. This is neither uncommon nor surprising, humans have worried about the end of the world since somebody first realized that it might, in fact, have an end. With 2012 now a year away, The End seems to be more of a player in the zeitgeist and is an ever-increasing topic of relevance in media and popular conversation. The popularity of my friend (and fellow Discover blogger) Phil Plait’s book Death From the Skies: These are the Ways the World Will End speaks to this. Even mainstream media outlets like Fox News, LiveScience , and Fox News again, recently ran pieces examining end of the world scenarios (and even though the second Fox entry was about debunked scenarios for the End, it still implies that it’s in the forefront of thought).
America’s current plans for human space exploration seem horribly slow, considering we won’t leave Earth’s orbit until 2025 and won’t reach Mars until 2035. Worse than that, solar radiation spikes could keep us grounded for decades more.
The Sun emits a steady stream of potentially deadly cosmic radiation. As long as humans remain within the Earth’s atmosphere, the threat posed by this radiation is practically nil, but any extended trips into deep space require careful shielding to protect astronauts from the threat of radiation sickness or cancer. The exact levels of radiation vary depending on the severity of solar activity, which falls into a number of predictable cycles.
That’s where the problem starts, according to a new study by NASA scientist John Norbury. We already know about the Schwabe cycle, which shows sunspot activity reaches its peak, known as the solar maximum, every 11 years. When this occurs, there’s a big increase in solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which together spread deadly radiation throughout the solar system. The last solar maximum was reached in 2002, so we’re headed for more in 2013, 2024, and 2035. Those last two dates are worrying, considering the current “2025 out of orbit/2035 to Mars” plans of the United States.
Many activitites, jobs, and pastimes have virtual mascots—mascots that just seem to get adopted over time. Gamblers have always courted lady luck. Absinthe drinkers talk about seeing the green faerie. Mars exploration has the Great Galactic Ghoul, to which we’ve alluded recently.
It’s on point related to that last one that I’d like to expand. The fledgling space tourism is poised to explode. Seven people have already paid seven-figure sums to fly to the International Space Station. Like any airline, Virgin Galactic allows you to book your flight to orbit. The Russian Orbital Technologies Corporation has announced that it will build a space hotel by the year 2016. This is about to become a HUGE industry; I think space tourism needs a mascot.
Now I do a lot of public outreach, and talk to hundreds, even thousands, of people about space and space travel each year. A common desire among those who dream to slip the surly bonds of Earth is to “float weightless, free of gravity.” Almost as a rule, I find that these people are unaware of something called Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS). Put more simply: space sickness.
For the first few days in space, most space travellers experience dizziness, disorientation, and/or nausea (sometimes very severe). Senator Jake Garn–a former naval avaiator and presumably used to motion-related sickness–was so sick that NASA astronauts named the unofficial unit of space sickness the “Garn”. An astronaut who is space sick at a level of one Garn is, essentially, useless as far as performing meaningful work. A space tourist at a level of one Garn would probably not be enjoying his or her “vacation.” One can almost envision space tourists, upon return to Earth, debarking from their spacecraft sporting the very same Transderm patches upon which some cruise ship vacationers rely.
So in some senses the industry already has a built-in mascot, one that has been with space travelers since the onset. Unlike the virtual mascots already listed, I see space tourism’s virtual mascot as being different than those previously mentioned, and more similar to the virtual mascot of 400 meter dash runners. As runners hit the 300 meter mark, and lactic acid builds up to a high concentration in their muscles, runers say that “Rigor mortis sets in,” “You have a refrigerator on your back,” or “The bear jumps on your back.” Some athletes merge two and just say that “Riggy Bear” has jumped on your back.
Combining the spirit of the 400 meter dash mascot with the experience of Senator Garn and others, I propose that the mascot for space Tourism–one whose loving embrace you would prefer to avoid, but who will probably be your busom buddy whether you like it or not–be named Ralph*.
I’m not sure what form Ralph should take, the best thing I’ve come up with to date is an amoeba (think of the behavior of liquid in microgravity). I know, that’s lame. So I’m throwing it out (pun partially intended) to you. In the talkback, what form should “Ralph the Mascot of Space Tourism” take?
*For the uninitiated, to “Ralph”, or to “meet Ralph” is a slang term meaning to vomit.
I recently speculated that spacecraft both orbiting and sitting upon Mars may have already detected signs of life. In particular, some spacecraft have detected signs of methane:
In 2004 the European Space Agency probe Mars Express detected the presence of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. Methane can be produced geologically (and Mars is not short on volcanoes), or biologically. (Though media reports of that observation got a bit out of hand.) Either way, this is an important observation and research on the source of this methane is still ongoing.
The existence of methane is ambiguous: Though methane is produced biologically, as I wrote above, it’s also produced geologically (and, in fact, the methane detected on Mars tends to be both localized and emanating from some of the more volcanic regions). It can also be delivered by comets. Given its ubiquity, methane may raise hopes, but in the end turn out to be a poor biomarker. Detecting life elsewhere will require multiple lines of evidence.
Planets, in particular habitable planets, are so common in works of science fiction that there’s a tendency to assume that they’d be common in the real Universe. There is little hard data to support that notion–not yet anyway. Just 15 years ago, the only planets astronomers knew where the nine that orbited one star: Sol. (I’m not attempting to promote Pluto-back-to-full-fledged-planethood, but it was considered a planet back then, hence the inclusion.) We have now identified over 490 planets (and counting) orbiting other stars. So although stars with planets seem to be fairly ubiquitous, perhaps even the rule rather than the exception, that still raises the question of the abundance of habitable planets.
Until recently the detection methods astronomers used for finding extrasolar planets has had a distinct bias–the planets we’ve found tend to be large, Jupiter-like, and close to their parent stars. Now the Kepler spacecraft has just begun its search for extrasolar Earths and, in a very short time, has already found over 700 candidate stars that could have Earth-sized planets. As followup studies examine these candidate stars further, is it only a matter of time until another “Earth” is detected? Certainly, but we may have to sift through a lot of near-misses first.
The Veggie team at Desert RATS
Creating a space farm is a such a common assumption that SciFi writers almost routinely include some kind of plant growth or space farm area in any show that involves long distance space travel or space-based colonies. Off the top of my head, I can think of an episode of Doctor Who, and the film Sunshine, and the New Yorker story Lostronaut.
But growing plants is hardly straightforward. Indeed, straightness is one of the problems: Plants rely on both light or gravity to orient themselves, so their roots grow down and their stems grow up. But then there’s the problem of providing the right levels of humidity, ensuring the water actually goes down to the roots in a zero-G environment, providing enough nutrients, and doing it all in a space- and energy-efficient way.
To solve the problems of growing plants in space, Orbital Technologies Corporation has been working on “deployable vegetable production units“ or, as they’re more affectionately called, Veggies. The latest iteration was based on astronaut food containers, and offers astronauts a way to grow plants as a hobby during their free time, as well as give NASA a chance to experiment on the problems of growing plants in microgravity.
Planets and moons do not give up their secrets willingly or easily — they make us work for every clue we get. That seems particularly true when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life. Even then, some bodies in the Solar System make us work harder than others.
Take Titan, for example. Two weeks ago, I wrote that observations of Titan from Cassini have been interpreted by some as possible signs of life, in particular:
Now it turns out that computer simulations based upon Cassini observations, simulations which hint at depletions of various chemical species at Titan’s surface may again hint at the possibility of life on Titan. The results are very preliminary, but fascinating nevertheless.
It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever be able to make a positive determination if there’s life on Titan based upon Cassini data alone. Cassini is, after all, an orbiter, and its observations of Titan’s surface come from hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers away–limited to those that can be attained during flybys. To ascertain the presence of life, we’ll need what scientists in the field of remote sensing call “ground truth”–we’ll have to wait until we are able to send a followup probe to the surface of Titan. Perhaps we’ll send a probe to Titan similar to Tiny–the Titan rover who has guest-starred in episodes of this season’s Eureka.
Even then it could turn out that, unless NASA’s version of Tiny returns samples to Earth for human examination, the results could remain ambiguous and leave scientists scratching their heads. That is what’s happening with Mars.
Titan hides its secrets beneath a thick photochemical haze, but when it comes to planets that jealously guard their secrets, Mars is the champion. The Great Galactic Ghoul of Mars destroys our spacecraft. Mars throws us curve balls; Mars lies to us. Mars even laughs at the spacecraft it does allow to explore it.
As part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?
Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:
One of the most energetic phenomena observed (to date anyway) are gamma ray bursts or GRBs. As the name implies, GRBs are brief, but super intense, pulses of gamma ray energy that have been observed in distant galaxies. Two types of gamma ray bursts have been observed (to date anyway): long-period gamma ray bursts last for seconds to minutes and seem to be associated with supernova events; short period bursts last for milliseconds and may represent a cataclysmic outpouring of energy from colliding neutron stars.
Similar to the polar emissions from a neutron star, seen as a pulsar if the observer is within the cone traced out by the polar streams, gamma ray emissions from a GRB are very directional as well as intense. If a GRB went off anywhere within our galaxy, yes the entire galaxy, and Earth was in line with one of the two polar beams, all life on Earth would be extinct within hours. In his book “Death from the Skies,” fellow Discover blogger Phil Plait has a great description of what life on Earth would be like in its last minutes, and my co-author Ges Seger and I examined this phenomena in this short story. Now before you lie awake at night worrying, here’s a podcast describing why we should be safe from GRBs.
Any Trekker (or Trekkie) knows that the warp drives in Federation starships are powered by dilithium-moderated matter/antimatter reactions. When matter and antimatter come into contact: BOOM! There’s a huge release of energy and the Enterprise leaps ahead at incredible speeds. Of course that’s all sci-fi, right?
What fewer Trekkers, and the public in general, realize is that antimatter is not solely the purview of science fiction: it actually exists in the real Universe–it’s not just a common sci-fi MacGuffin (like, say, artificial gravity)–and it’s not crazy to suggest it as a possible propulsion system for futuristic spacecraft. Antimatter, in short, is the same as normal matter except with the charges flipped: protons take on a negative charge (anti-protons), and electrons reverse charge to become positrons. Our Sun creates antimatter during the proton-proton chain–the fusion reaction that generates the majority of its energy; some cosmological models even suggest that antimatter should be as common as matter in our Universe. And of course antimatter is huge in sci-fi. In one of the better TOS episodes, Spock observed that the Doomsday Machine’s weapon was “…pure anti-proton…”–an antimatter particle beam.
Sci-fi generally does a good job of showing what happens when matter comes into contact with antimatter: BOOM. When particles of matter interact with their antiparticles, through the process of pair annihilation the mass of both particles is converted completely into energy–gamma rays–via the dictates of E=mc2. We still don’t know if antimatter is as common as matter in the Universe; perhaps there are entire galaxies composed chiefly of antimatter, galaxies insulated from their matter counterparts by the vast distances of inter-galactic space. One of the last (permanent) residents of the International Space Station, the CERN-built Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (at right being loaded onto a Air Force C-5 Galaxy), may help us understand how ubiquitous antimatter is in the Universe, as well as aiding scientists in determining the nature of dark matter.
So will the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer teach us the secrets of antimatter, leading inexorably to its storage, manipulation, and use? Yes…and no. The first half of that statement is true: AMS may help physicists understand the ubiquity of antimatter and perhaps have a better grasp on the nature of our universe. Understanding the nature of antimatter as a precursor to using it? That’s more of a leap. It’s the kind of statement one might make in a work of science fiction to advance a plot point (trust me on this), but it makes less sense in the real world. Both producing and containing antimatter are currently way beyond our capabilities. But if scientists could design, and engineers could build, a vessel to contain antimatter, it would go a long way towards solving our planet’s energy needs.
As far as a viable matter/antimatter propulsion, it turns out that NASA has, in fact, researched just that–spacecraft with antimatter-based propulsion systems. Of course the Trekkers are keenly aware of the dangers associated with the term “containment failure”, and that would be a real consideration if the antimatter had to be stored. The drives being researched by NASA would be very different from the antimatter pulse drive I wrote about previously, and would generate/use antimatter–to use a business term–on a “just in time” basis. This type of main engine would dramatically cut the travel time, and open up for exploration, to countless destinations within the Solar System.
Vacations on Mars via Antimatter Express–who’s coming with me?